Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

American writer Frederick Buechner has written four memoirs: Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982); Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983); Telling Secrets (1991) and The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (2000)

Throughout the course of this year’s reading series, A Year of Reading Buechner, I am working my way through the memoirs. I read the first one, A Sacred Journey, a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so it was with great anticipation that I settled  down on the couch to read Memoir #2, Now and Than: A Memoir of Vocation. 

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I was not disappointed. Like the first one, this second memoir is short, but full of rich meditations on life and vocation.

A Sacred Journey finished at the point where Buechner is going off to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, and this book begins right where he left off. He details his life at college, and the beginning stages of his career as a college professor and a writer.

However, “details” is probably the wrong word. Unlike The Alphabet of Grace which took readers through one day in detail, this book is more of a bird’s-eye view of about thirty years in his life, in which he began as a student and ends as a best-selling author and successful lecturer.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first, New York, details his life as a student at Union Theological Seminary, his wrestling with the decision to give up writing to become a minister, and his marriage to his wife, Judy.

However, as it turns out, he doesn’t exactly have to make the choice between writing and the church. Shortly after his graduation, when he had resolved to set writing aside and embrace his call as a minister, and was waiting to find a church at which to serve, he received a letter from a colleague who was trying to organize a full-time religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, and asks Buechner if he would take it on. The second section of the book, called Exeter, takes place here, where Buechner and his wife move and he accepts the job as Head of the Religion Department.

It’s not exactly the same as being the minister of a local church, but he finds out it is very much like it. As well as conducting classes at the Academy, Buechner is called upon to preach at the (then mandatory) chapel services, where he encounters a congregation of young, bright, skeptical, and even hostile youth who attend services only because they are forced to be, as part of their requirement for their degrees.

And these students, who share, with all of us, the same dark doubts and wild hopes, in turn force Buechner to be on his toes. As he explains,

what little by little I learned from those years at Exeter was that unless those who proclaim the Gospel acknowledge honestly that darkness and speak bravely to the wildness of those hopes, they might as well save their breath for all the lasting difference their proclaiming will make to anybody. 

During his nine years at Exeter, as the Religion Department grew under his leadership, his family grew, too. Three daughters came along, and with them, a cosy family life. But after about four years, he takes a year off to do some writing, out of which comes a novel, The Final Beast. 

It is also during the years at Exeter that he encounters Agnes Sanford, whose teachings on healing prayer had a great influence on many Christians both then, and now. From her he learns how to pray, how to listen in prayer, and the importance of faith in prayer. And for one whose early childhood was marred by the suicide of his father, her teachings on the healing of memories must have struck a profound chord.

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Phillips Exeter Academy, where they still have a Religion Department. It includes a course called Faith and Doubt, which requires the students to read one of Buechner’ s works, The Alphabet of Grace. I think he must be pleased by that. Image by JeffL on Flickr

The final section of the book, Vermont,  is about the time after Exeter, when he left the thriving Religion Department and moved to Vermont. There, crippled by doubt that he was making the right choice, he lays aside his busy academic life and begins to write in earnest.  It is during this time that he comes face to face with a character who will engage him like none other before, Leo Bebb, who becomes the main character of The Book of Bebb, published originally in four parts (1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977) and finally bundled together and published together in 1979.

During this time Buechner’s daughters grow up and move out, and as he says,

Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still. 

As one whose children have left the nest to follow their own adventures, I can very much relate.

This book is engaging and thought-provoking.  Buechner revisits the theme he explored in A Sacred Journey, that of looking at our lives as not only “what happens to us” but as how God is speaking to us through the events in our lives.

Listen to your life, he writes. All moments are key moments. He further explains,

What are the words, what is the meaning, that this living alphabet of events spells out?–not meaning in the sense of a lesson to be drawn, a moral to be appended, but meaning in the sense of what your life means to you, of what your life is telling you about yourself? 

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It’s a good reminder to stop and ponder these things, and to think about how God arranges your life, and the decisions your make and the paths you take, along with the ones not taken, and how it all becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Not a movie, but more like a stone that Joshua took from the Jordan as the Israelites passed over and set on the side of the river as a remembrance, for the Israelites to revisit and remember their great escape. There are a great many of these remembrance stones to be found along the path of our lives, if we would just look for them.

In this book Buechner also touches briefly on the craft of writing. I found a couple of good pointers.  One, to use words in your writing that are the most accurate and alive that you can find. This is great advice for any writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction.

I also like this advice:

If you have to choose between words that mean more than what you have experienced and words that mean less, choose the ones that mean less because that way you leave room for your hearers to move around in and for yourself to move around in too. 

All in all, this is a graceful, poetic, interesting memoir that is not only about Frederick Buechner and his life as a lecturer and author from the 1950s to the 1980s, but it is also about every one of us. As he says in the introduction,

If you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story. I do it also in the hope of encouraging others to do the same–at least to look back over their own lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them. 

I think he succeeds, and so I highly recommend this book.

Listen to your life. You may just hear God’s voice speaking to you, too, and be surprised and delighted at what He says.


Other posts in this series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

 

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

After reading Buechner’s latest book last month to start of my Year of Reading Buechner, I decided that before going any further into his works I should read his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, so as to have a sense of who he is, and of some of his story.

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The photo on the front is of the author as a young boy with his father.

Buechner has written four memoirs all told. The Sacred Journey is his first, written in 1981, when he was fifty-five years old. He was at the apex of a busy and successful career as a lecturer and author, and decided that he would begin to set down the story of his life.

This first memoir covers the first part of his life, from childhood to just after the publication of his first and second novels, and includes his decision to become a Christian and to pursue the ministry.

Those few words are far too utilitarian to describe this lovely book, however. I was very glad to see that my hunch in reading last month’s book was correct. That book, The Remarkable Ordinary, was a compilation of some of his previously unpublished lectures. I found the writing style to be somewhat casual, more like a lecture than well thought out writing, but I was thought that his other books would likely have a higher writing standard.

I was not disappointed. This book captivates from the very first sentence.

How do you tell the story of your life–of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?

In Buechner’s case, he tells the story by weaving us a beautiful tale of grace-haunted moments, of sorrow and joy, of childhood and the larger-than-life characters that populate his world. And of failures and successes, and of the backdrop of his life, which was America in the 1930s to the 1960s, and how that era marked him.

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Warwick Academy, in Bermuda, the school Buechner attended in the 1930s after moving there with his family for a short while.  Of his time in Bermuda he writes, “I lived there…with a sense of the magic and mystery of things greater than I had ever experienced this side of Oz.”  Image from the Bermuda Sun

I don’t want to re-tell the story of his life, because I would really love you to read it for yourself. He tells it so much better than I could.

This is a short book, only 112 pages in my paperback copy, but full of wisdom and truth. I’ve starred or underlined something every two or three pages. It’s a book that weaves a gentle, contemplative spell.

As he explains,

Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.

It is this most important history that Buechner addresses in this book. God is speaking through our lives, he writes. What can the events and ordinariness of our lives tell us of what he has said, and what he is saying still?

I am reading this book in my 55th year, so I understand perhaps some of the motivation he had for writing this book. As you get older the past becomes both more significant, and less. The people who populate it, especially those who live only in your memories now, are mythic beings. The events you have lived, some epic, some ordinary, are signposts along the way. You get feeling that you want to make sense of it all, and there must be some sense to make, if you could only spend some time to figure it out.

I love that he took that yearning and turned his life story into so much more than just a story of events, although you certainly get those. But woven throughout all of it is the question of not just what happened, but what it means. And therein is an even more interesting tale.

This wider scope is what makes this book both so very intimate but also so very relevant to the reader. As he says,

My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

Indeed, in the telling of his story Buechner invites us to look with new eyes upon our own story, to see those grace-haunted moments that we may have been oblivious to when we lived them.

This book has many, many glowing reviews, and I will confess that although I didn’t disbelieve the authors of the reviews, I couldn’t quite understand why people said it was a book they returned to again and again. Why would you want to read a memoir of someone’s life over and over? Once you had read it, wouldn’t your curiosity be satisfied?

Now I understand. This is a book that is meant to be read, and re-read, and savoured.  Buechner gives you much to ponder, and a light to shine on your own path. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars. Or however many stars you would give to one of the best books you have read.